On Bjork’s Biophilia: Music, Technology And Enchantment

There are a lot of ways to characterize the music of the Icelandic singer/composer/instrumentalist/imagineer Bjork, and certainly the labels “adventurously creative”, “experimental”, and “electronic” come to mind. But these labels inevitably come up short since it’s hard to categorize Bjork’s sonic output; moreover, artistically she achieves the ideal of being an idiom unto herself. If we had to sum up Bjork’s sound and musical approach in one word? Enchantment.

Her recent release Biophilia (presumably) takes its title from E.O. Wilson’s 1984 book of the same name. Biophilia refers to the human instinctive affinity for the natural world. Lyrically, each song on Biophilia explores a different concept relating to the ecology of nature, science and our relationship to these domains. The lyrics are supported musically by a combination of acoustic sounds (such as the harp playing on tracks 1 and 10, “Moon” and “Solstice”, and the organ on track 2, “Thunderbolt” and track 12, “Dark Matter”), programmed electronic sounds, and custom-made electronic-acoustic instruments such as the gamelaneste (on tracks 3 and 7, “Crystalline” and “Virus”) which sounds much like . . . a cross between a gamelan and a celeste.

There are a lot of beautiful moments on Biophilia. For example, “Dark Matter” explores dissonant harmonies over a disturbing drone that refuses to settle into a typical tonic-dominant consonance, preferring to keep shifting its notes towards more angular intervals; the track is powerful because it’s unsettling. One of my preferred tracks is “Virus” which features the clanging gamelaneste, a hang drum (like an inverted steel pan played with the hands–or perhaps it’s a sampled hang drum?), kick drum and sub bass–together sounding like a small factory. Considering that the song compares love to a virus seeking a host body, this factory-like soundscape plays the human body while Bjork’s lyrics represent the virus.

Bjork’s vocal phrasing can sometimes sound odd and a little disjointed but it works because of the singer’s intensity and her commitment to pursuing enchantment. (Plus, when you’re working in a musical idiom of your own design, anything goes!) The lyrics also gain power from the fact that they’re recorded dry–without reverb. This is no small thing, by the way. In our era of auto-tune and infinite effects processing, not too many people choose to approach music making so unadorned. Bjork’s reverb-free, multi-tracked harmonies with their intriguing note combinations are on their own worth the cost of downloading this album.

And Bjork seems to love–and who doesn’t?–sub-bass basslines and sub-bass kick drums built out of mere sine waves. In this regard, she borrows from a sound practice we’ve heard in hip hop for a long time now, originally growing out of a functionality of the Roland TR-808 drum machine that allowed its kick drum sound to be de-tuned into a low-pitched “oooo” sound: using a sine tone sub-bass sound as both minimal bassline and surrogate kick drum.

You can hear Bjork’s powerful vocal harmonies and some sub-bass tones on the song “Moon”:


The songs on Biophilia also exist as individual apps for purchase within the (free) Biophilia app available at the Apple app store. Working with visual artists and software programmers, Bjork has created through these apps an enchanting interactive space for experiencing the sounds and concepts of Biophilia. Each app offers the listener/user several options: watch a visual representation of the music as horizontally moving blocks of color (with Bjork’s voice as a series of bouncing and gliding balls superimposed on the colored blocks); watch a traditional score of the music that scrolls as the music plays; or play an instrument or game designed to go with each Biophilia’s 11 songs. These instrument-games take the ideas of the songs and use them as the basis for new ways of thinking about music making. My favorites are those that allow the user to add and subtract parts to step sequencers that take unconventional not to mention beautiful forms–both visually and musically. (Water flowing through a series of moons at different points in their lunar phases to trigger harp sounds anyone?) The apps also include extended musicological notes by Nikki Dibben that explain the genesis of each song as well its structure through interviews with Bjork and accessible critical music analysis.

Here’s a glimpse of the apps in action:

In all, Biophilia is an energized attempt to expand our notion of what a musical “release” can look, feel, and sound like. The apps are one of the best ways I’ve seen of enabling the listener to interact with the recording’s musical and conceptual materials in a meaningful way. Bjork seems to want to help explain as much as she wants to entertain and that’s pretty splendid, isn’t it? And her ability to continually enchant is a compelling way to inspire us into thinking more about the deep ecology connecting humans, nature, and technology.

On Sonic Persuasion: The Music Of Oneohtrix Point Never

Over the past few months I heard about Oneohtrix Point Never (aka Daniel Lopatin)’s electronic music in at least two disparate places–in Simon Reynolds’ fine book Retromania and in a recent article by Sasha Frere-Jones in The New Yorker–so I decided to buy his most recent recording Replica and check it out. Compelling music sometimes bubbles to the surface like this.

Oneohtrix’s music is indeed a rich soundworld, and while it drones and loops along, it’s never quite static. There’s a lot happening and changing moment to moment and this alone keeps your ear in the game.

Style-wise, the tracks on Replica don’t sound nostalgic, nor do they sound particularly 2011. Actually, it’s hard to date them. Maybe this is because Oneohtrix uses vintage synthesizers to generate arpeggios, improvises chords and melodies, and mixes these with audio samples culled from old infomercials found on YouTube. Everything is then blended together, re-sampled (sometimes many times) and assembled on the computer.  Here is Oneohtrix discussing his creative process:

“I jam combos of arpeggiators in latch or unlatched modes, sequencers, and free playing via loopers, and then bounce it to computer where I resample and layer the stuff there. I do this process over and over. It can get really time-consuming and insane.”

Most everything in this music is in full view, standing revealed: you can hear the seams between sections; you can hear the fragmented sampled source material; you can hear the repeated arpeggios; you can hear the sometimes cheesy sound patches (e.g. are those synthesized horn sounds?); and you can hear the layers of noise and hiss.

In other words, nothing is hidden in this music. It’s assembled from fragments, but without fetishizing their sources–without, that is, any knowing “winks” to indicate to us that some sound is referencing in an ironic way. What this leaves us with is a soundworld that is by turns mysterious, curious and anxious, and most importantly, quite emotionally moving.

Here is my favorite track, “Power Of Persuasion”:

On Musical Taste: Carl Wilson’s Let’s Talk About Love

Musical taste is a funny thing in that we usually know what we like, but we can’t always say why. Instead, we often delineate the boundaries of our tastes by knowing what we don’t like. So, for instance, we might insist that we never listen to country songs, or that Romantic classical music is an instant turn off. Whatever our tastes, though, what we like we also tend to hold dear and defend because music has an uncanny ability to seem to reinforce our identity: how we see ourselves in the world, and even how we see the world itself. Music can be that powerful as both a mirror and lens of self-understanding. It can get to the point where if someone insults your favorite music you take it personally!

But what would it be like if we stopped listening for a moment to the musics we hold dear and turned instead to musics that we believe to lie outside our circle of taste? Could we learn anything from this exercise? Carl Wilson’s Let’s Talk About Love (Continuum 2007), a concise and quite masterful exploration of musical taste, does exactly this. Wilson takes the pop icon Celine Dion as his case study, precisely because Dion’s music was never something that appealed to him and he wants to figure out the source of its appeal for millions of listeners. In the course of dissecting Celine’s musical history, image, music, and fan base, Wilson explores the mechanics of taste and what our tastes in culture reveal about ourselves.

Much of the book’s analytical apparatus is in Chapter 7, “Let’s Talk About Taste.” Here, Wilson draws on the work of French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu to make the case that our musical tastes are always social things. Bourdieu’s classic work on this subject is Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste (1979). For Bourdieu, our tastes are strategic tools that we use in an ongoing quest for what he calls “symbolic power” and the pursuit of (class) “distinction” or, put more simply, coolness. And here’s how it works: our particular tastes in the products of culture (e.g. music, art, fashion, literature, etc.) allow us to acquire what Bourdieu famously calls “cultural capital” and “social capital.” Cultural capital includes knowledge of culture, ideas, and cultural references, while social capital encompasses personal connections and influence (89).  Whether we we’re aware of it or not, we’re all trying to expand our reservoirs of cultural and social capital by continually extending our tastes for the products of culture and then telling others about it. And as we expand our reservoirs we accrue two kinds of power: the analytical power of being able to make ever-finer distinctions of style, and also a kind of sociopolitical power that rests on our acuity for making such distinctions.

One aspect of the book I was quite taken by is Wilson’s discussion of a kind of postmodern (or is it post-postmodern?) taste virtuosity that involves “manipulating signs and symbols”—the kind of thing that brings to mind ironic, acoustic cover versions of the current pop hit of the day, or the feverish work of remixers and DJs who play with huge databases of far-flung musics to make composite works that reference many (often conflicting) cultural artifacts simultaneously in a witty kind of way. As Wilson notes, work like this is entirely a bravura performance of taste, [but] it disavows having a taste, which would be boring, pathetic, embarrassing (149).

And this brings us to a key point: we all have musical tastes. Moreover, we would all benefit from getting to know these tastes intimately–unpack them, figure out their origins and dynamics, and map their connections to other parts of our lives. Once we do this, we’ll be much more prepared for meaningful encounters with musics that we believe lie somewhere outside of our taste circle. Indeed, the ultimate aim of Let’s Talk About Love is to encourage a cultural relativism that urges us to be sympathetic to all music—not just to the music we like. We can move towards a sympathetic stance by asking of any music we encounter: What is its usefulness?  That is to say, in what contexts might it have deep meaning for a community of listeners? This sympathetic stance also informs what Wilson calls a “pluralistic” music criticism that will “put less stock in defending its choices and more in depicting its enjoyment, with all its messiness and private soul tremors—to show what it is like for me to like it, and invite you to compare . . .here is my story, what is yours?” (157).

On Imitation, Oral Tradition And Pleasure: Nicki Minaj’s Super Bass Travels

That self-organizing living force is what we’re having to ride. What we’re doing with the web is making a very large-scale global organism that in a few decades or so we will be able to identify as an organism in every sense of the word.
– Kevin Kelly on the Technium

One of the most watched videos on YouTube right now is that of an eight-year old English girl named Sophia Grace Brownlee doing a musical impression of the song “Super Bass” by Trinidadian-American rapper and singer Nicki Minaj. Here is Minaj’s video for “Super Bass” (which has been viewed an astonishing 183 million times):

It’s understandable that Minaj’s video has been watched by so many people. The song hits all the right pop notes–musical and otherwise: infectious rapping alternating with sung melodic hook, an upbeat, 120-126 bpm tempo, a beat that switches from a half time feel on the verses to a full-steam ahead, four-on-the-floor feel on the choruses (making the song perfect for remixing), a simple four chord harmonic structure, and a video that telegraphs desire through its depiction of lots of pretty bodies.

Now here is Brownlee’s version (viewed an impressive 20 million times):

Brownlee’s clip has been watched so much because she’s such an exuberant and charismatic performer who uncannily gets the details of Minaj’s lyrics and phrasing just right.

But what I find fascinating about Brownlee’s take on “Super Bass”, though, is how well it demonstrates the ability of music to spread virus-like from one host to another, transcending differences of place, age and ethnicity to keep reproducing itself through oral tradition. Indeed, Brownlee performs Minaj’s song as if in an exuberant trance–like she can’t help the fact that she’s the new host for this musical virus.

And while music scholars today agree that music is neither a language nor a universal language that transcends boundaries of culture, the online ecosystem and global culture repository that is YouTube suggests that it is nevertheless still a powerful contagion of pleasure.

From The Archives: Chords And Beats

Five years ago I wrote a series of pieces for piano and electronic sounds (percussion, bells, sub bass, pads, etc.) called Chords And Beats. The “chords” were improvised on piano, the “beats” and other sounds played on the keyboard to trigger non-piano sounds. Sometimes the chords came first, sometimes the beats came first. Whatever the case, at some point I would be playing along with sounds just recorded, listening to find little synchronies and contrasts and harmonies and discovering a musical form as I went along. All the parts were improvised and done in a single pass, from beginning to end, to give some sense of a performance.

Improvising music can bring about more interesting results than programming it because in improvising I feel that I’m listening closely. And it’s the traces of that listening process in the recorded artifact–embodied in those little hesitations, repetitions, changes of direction, dynamics, and even flat out mistakes–that offer evidence that the music is in some way alive rather than inert (although recordings themselves are ultimately frozen things).

Here is one of the pieces:

On The Soundscapes Of Le Quattro Volte

Le Quattro Volte (2011) is a riveting, faux documentary-style meditation on death, (re)birth, the relationship between humans and the natural world, sound and time.  Directed by Michelangelo Frammartino, the film follows the repetitive daily life of an elderly goat herder as he goes about his work in a small rural Italian town. The man doesn’t speak and so our ears quickly become attuned to the soundscape of the goats (with their constantly clanging bells), the town, and especially, nature’s elements.  As we focus on all these non-human sounds an amazing perceptual thing happens: nature becomes foreground and the human world shrinks to feel infinitesimal. When the man doesn’t get up from his bed one day, the goats make their way to his apartment, quietly surrounding his dying body with their humming presence. It’s remarkable scenes like this and others that remind us–at least, those of us who are prone to forget such things–of the non-human world’s boundless soundings.

After the man dies he is burned to ash and in the scene immediately following we see the birth of a baby goat.  Now we follow this goat as he learns how to walk, be in the world and follow the pack. But soon he gets separated from the others, lost on a mountainside, alone. We hear the anguished cries of his small soul alone in an indifferent universe and it’s moving to listen to because the goat has become for us a synecdoche for a wider world of suffering that happens every day out of our earshot.  Not knowing where to go, the goat finds refuge under a lone pine tree whose shelter momentarily puts life’s big questions on hold.  Set against a changing sky, the lone pine becomes a kind of clock, bringing us through the summer, autumn and winter seasons.  Listening and watching the wind blow through the pine’s branches we move along with its slow rhythm.

By springtime, the goat is no longer to be seen and townsfolk have arrived to cut down the pine for their own needs. Stripped of its bark and branches and erected in the town square, the bare pine becomes a site for celebration and, from the looks of it, some tree climbing contests. Tracking their sights and sounds from a distance, Frammartino reveals these festivities as curious affairs. We hear faint strains of Italian folk music, singing, and voices, but can’t stop thinking about that distraught lost goat and the lone pine. Soon the tree is cut into logs for lumber and loaded onto a flatbed truck that wheezes up a watchful mountainside. Here again, Frammartino sets up a striking contrast between the indifference of human-made sounds to those of nature.

It turns out that the cut up pine that sheltered that lost goat is on its way to a yard where it will be slow burned to make charcoal. As we watch and listen to the wood smoldering we remember the earlier scene where the goat herder’s body was incinerated. As the transmogrified charcoal is shoveled into bags we hear the life force of what was once a pine tree still crack, snapple and popping.  Where is this charcoal–indeed this movie–going?

The charcoal is delivered back to the small town and the first stop is the apartment where the old man lived. The delivery man knocks a few times, but no one answers the door. In the final shot, though, we see smoke rising from the apartment’s chimney. Then Le Quattro Volte‘s transmigration of souls hits us: man became lost goat became lone pine tree became lumber and then charcoal that journeyed home and now burns again as new life.


Even though I’ve given away the story, there’s still good reason to watch it unfold yourself, for it’s in the unfolding through the film’s poetic evocation of time that the magic happens. Stripped of dialogue and a musical soundtrack, Le Quattro Volte moves at a glacial pace, substituting nature’s quiet-slow cycles for man-made noise-speed. And extended shots of pensive animals or windswept grasses remind one of what ecologist David Abram in his book The Spell Of The Sensuous (1996) describes as “the ‘spirits’ of an indigenous culture are primarily those modes of intelligence or awareness that do not possess a human form” (13). Indeed, watching the film you get a sense that one of its goals is to show us how these modes of intelligence–embodied in the spirits of the old man, the goats, a barking dog, crackling charcoal, mountains and wind–co-exist as multiple temporalities to weave something harmonious.

Le Quattro Volte, in other words, is about the experience of time and how time articulates itself through sound. For me, the most astonishing aspect of the film is how it captures, renders and places in the stereo field all kinds worldly sounds, allowing the viewer to be immersed in the phenomena seen and unseen onscreen.  Everything in the film has a textured sonic voice that earns your listening attention by making you feel like even though you may have heard this sound before you never really listened closely enough. The sounds are vivid as if scored as music–with entrances and solos, melodies, rhythms,  call and response and counterpoint. Frammartino discusses his film’s sound design:

“The sound engineer’s work was really amazing. Paolo Benvenuti and Simone Paolo Olivero worked three or four hours more a day than us on the shoot. The sound takes up half of the movie. We worked with a lot of microphones everywhere in the shot, which allowed us to mix afterwards. This is a film where man is in the foreground and the sound is in the background, until little by little it takes up more space. We worked the sound in this way to find the perfect balance between human beings, images, and sound itself.”

In sum, while Canadian composer R. Murray Schafer’s term “soundscape” has been in circulation for a long while now, rarely do films offer us such a rich and focused opportunity to experience soundscapes through thoughtful sound design.  Le Quattro Volte is unique in that it brings the soundscape front and center and encourages  us to see and make sense of life’s cyclical rhythms with our ears.